Mastering Business Abroad: 5 Essential Etiquette Hacks for Navigating China

Embarking on a business trip to China? Navigating the cultural nuances of this vast and diverse country can be both exciting and challenging. Explore here the five essential etiquette tips to ensure your trip is successful and culturally respectful.

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In a world where esteemed startup founders wear t-shirts to sales meetings—think Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey—it’s easy to forget that, beyond the borders of Silicon Valley, certain cultures take business etiquette far more seriously.

This is particularly the case for China, where small things can result in serious offense being taken by your hosts. For instance, being five minutes late might seem fashionable in other contexts, but it is a strict no-no for the Chinese.

And with China’s economy on the rise, you wouldn’t want to get on their wrong side.

Essential Business Etiquettes for China Trip

According to etiquette expert Sara Jane Ho, getting on the right side of Chinese business people usually means keeping the harmony and going out of your way to make them feel comfortable with you—even at your own expense.

Here are five tips on how you can do just that.

Be (Over)Prepared

You know how you always seem to be short of only one document when handing out copies in a meeting? Usually, the person who missed out just laughs it off and shares it with someone else.

Not in China. Chinese businesspeople will expect you to be extremely well-prepared for the meeting. Coming up short on presentation materials will not look good on you, and will be very embarrassing for that one person in the meeting who doesn’t have a copy.

Remember, it’s important not to cause your Chinese business partners to lose ‘face’.

Overprepare all the materials you intend to pass around. If there are 10 people present in your meeting, print 20 copies in case they bring their business partners along as well.

This includes business cards, too. Be sure to print a fresh set of cards that have a Mandarin version on one side.

Preparations don’t end in the meeting room. You should also be ready to host a meal or two after the first meeting if your host requests for it, or to go for a few rounds of drinks late into the night.

The latter is, in fact, critical for building relationships (or guanxi) with your hosts. China has a massive drinking culture, and participation in it is almost always mandatory unless you have a reason not to.

For such occasions, however, business is usually not discussed. Small talk, says etiquette expert Syndi Seid, is typically preferred. As such, it would be good for you to brush up on Chinese current affairs, and perhaps even pick up a few Chinese phrases to throw into the mix—always a crowd-pleaser, regardless of the country you’re in!

Rein in Your Emotions

We get it: you landed a massive deal, you’re happy, and you want to punch your fist in the air and give a shout of joy. And you deserve it!

But in China, you might want to reserve the celebrations for a private space, like your hotel room. Big displays of emotion are generally frowned upon by Chinese businesspeople—they tend to be more guarded, especially in professional settings.

This means that it is usually hard to assess how agreeable the person on the other side of the table is during discussions. Even if they disagree with you, they’ll likely err on the side of being polite and not display it in any way. There’s no easy way to get around this—only practice and experience will help you (eventually) read between the lines.

In the early days, your best bet would be to take the lead of your meeting companions and match their level of enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

Watch Your Hands

Generally speaking, it is always rude to point with your finger—especially so in China. Keep your fingers to yourself, and gesture with an open palm instead. But don’t go overboard with the gesturing, either, as the Chinese tend to find it distracting.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught in business schools when it comes to handshakes, it’s better to keep them gentle and brief in China.

Similarly, refrain from any public displays of affection, such as giving hugs or slaps on the back. Chinese businesspeople are usually more reserved in professional settings, as seen in the previous point.

Finally, when presenting your business card to your meeting companions (you’ve prepared a ton of them, right?), make sure that you pass it with two hands, and with the Chinese side up and facing him or her.

In the same way, receive any business cards you are offered with two hands, spend a few seconds studying it, and then keep it away.

Keep the Right Order in Mind

Traditionally, hierarchy plays a huge role in Chinese society, whether it be in a personal or professional setting. It is, therefore, crucial for business travelers to remember the right order of things in a variety of situations.

This starts right from the moment you enter the meeting room. The first to enter the room is usually considered to be the ‘head’ of the group, so make sure to reserve that honor for the rightful person (typically, the leader of the Chinese delegation).

Also, meetings often kick off with small talk, rather than diving right into the business end of things. As we explained earlier, this is usually followed by several other meetings—in the form of meals or drinks—before a deal is closed.

Patience, as they say, is of the essence, especially in China.

During business meals, don’t help yourself to a chair right away. Wait for your host to initiate the sequence of seating, according to hierarchy.

Similarly, while it is polite to try every dish on the table, don’t rush to grab the last bite on any plate! Unless they invite you to take it, “snatching” the last piece will seem greedy to your hosts.

Bring an Appropriate Gift

The Chinese are big on gift-giving, especially in business circles. The act of giving a present gives ‘face’ to your host, showing that you respect and value him or her.

It is essential, however, to pick a gift that is neither too cheap nor expensive—the former makes you seem, well, cheap, while the latter might come across as bribery, which is an illegal act in China.

In addition, giving an extremely lavish gift—say, a luxury watch or electronic device—will make it hard for your potential business partner to match, causing him or her embarrassment, especially when the exchange happens in front of other peers.

To play it safe, go with a gift that represents your own culture well. For instance, if you’re a Singaporean, a premium bottle of the Singapore Sling cocktail would be a good fit—not too costly, and something unique to your host’s culture.

Also, avoid anything that has negative connotations in Chinese culture. These include items like clocks (associated with funerals) and scissors (imply the severing of a relationship).

Patience and Manners Go a Long Way

Many of these tips might seem like common sense, and that’s because they are.

The rule of thumb is to always remain patient and polite, regardless of the circumstance that you are in.

Chinese businesspeople value authenticity and are likely to feel more secure doing business with you if you present yourself as an honest potential partner.

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